[cw: use of gay slur]
Tardiness: A Personal History
by Marshall Moore
Truro, England: June 2021
I’m in trouble.
After almost a year here, I’ve committed the drive down to Falmouth into muscle memory. I know the curves in the road, the lanes I’ll need at the roundabouts, the lights I’ll most likely catch red. Most of the time, the commute takes just under an hour door to door. There’s the eastward leg through suburbia toward central Truro: a couple of retail parks I rather like, a long row of identical semi-detached houses I can’t imagine buying or renting because who wants to live on a clogged thoroughfare? a speed camera or two. There’s the hill as you descend from Gloweth and Highertown into the city center (which isn’t called Lowertown but ought to be). You pass a big pub called the County Arms shortly before you reach the congested roundabout where the parking lots for Aldi, Sainsbury’s, and the Cornwall County Hall all converge. The office parks I drive past could be anywhere—I’ve seen similar in places as far apart as Charlotte and Chiang Mai, Stockholm and Sydney—but in this drizzly tidiness of cute houses with gardens that dazzle with late-spring flowers, you couldn’t be anywhere other than this southwesternmost corner of England. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the lush greenery. It rains like you’re on Venus but the atmosphere won’t kill you, but there’s always the threat of lapsing into Stendhal syndrome because of the rampant gorgeousness of it all.
When the fall semester began, I was still not used to driving in Britain and, doubly paranoid, would give myself an hour and a half to get to work. I’d just moved to the UK from Hong Kong and my PTSD had PTSD. You can only inhale so much teargas and run from unhinged paramilitaries masquerading as cops so many times before your blood turns into pure cortisol. No one leaving that city in the wake of 2019 will emerge unscathed. As time passed and I grew less terrified that my mind would wander and a head-on collision would ensue (I’m American), I learned how much time I would need. I didn’t mind cutting it close. Because of the pandemic, I wasn’t keen to spend more time on campus and around other people than necessary. My approach: get there, teach the class, speak from a safe distance of six feet away to any students I needed to chat with afterward, race back home at five miles an hour below the speed limit, lock the door. Now and then traffic could be a bit slow. Rain and rush hour even during lockdown could take their toll. And time and space got melty during England’s endless, shifting lockdowns. Could we go to the shops this week or not? What was open, what was closed? Where could you go, exactly? No one seemed to know, and Britain’s elected officials flagrantly did whatever they wanted to anyway, regardless of what this week’s rules were. I never felt entirely certain of anything. No one did.
This morning, I gave myself what I thought was enough of a buffer. Even a last-minute trip to the loo hasn’t thrown me off schedule by much. I’ve had IBS all my life. Making provisions for that third or fourth trip to the bathroom has always been a part of the morning routine. I checked traffic before I left. Nothing too unusual, maybe a little slow on the A390 until the roundabout at the hospital entrance and the retail park. Two lanes of traffic converge just after you pass it. I was certain I’d have enough time but traffic’s not moving. This modest little city of 30,000 anchors a wider region of ten times that. But when the tourists come, nothing moves. I don’t think I’ll make it to campus on time, and I’m supposed to be teaching a workshop on creative writing to a group of teachers visiting from other parts of the country. At this rate, it’ll take me half an hour just to get to the Arch Hill roundabout, where I’ll turn right to take the A39 down to Falmouth. That’ll leave me another half-hour to drive the entire way, find parking, and hike up the hill to my office. Not impossible, but the best-case scenario is that I’ll arrive late and panting. Not the best first impression. I’m so screwed.
Greenville, NC: 1982
Here’s what it’s like to be the class fag pariah in the small-town American South. Every school had a few kids like this. Back in the day, you just took the abuse and the taunting. No one would help because the consensus held that it was your own fault for being that way in the first place. I used to sit on the long bench in the atrium either reading or writing. One day, a couple of boys came up and took a seat on either side of me, boxing me in. One said, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle! Does yours look like that?” as he slid a picture of a naked man cut out of a porno mag onto the pages of my book. The cock was huge, red, and fully erect. Too shocked to say anything, I tried to push the slip of paper away. “Mine looks like that,” the boy continued. “Does that turn you on? Do you wish you could suck it?” Was he talking about his own dick or the porn model’s? Did he even catch the ambiguity? I spluttered, got up, and hurried to the guidance counselor’s office to hide. There were no windows but there were also no students, just an unoccupied sofa and no one who would hit me or shove gay porn in my face. I was twelve.
Coping strategy: I began to time everything to avoid everybody. Between classes, I’d linger at my locker, sometimes reading but also scanning for oncoming thugs. Although I didn’t get beaten up much (at school, anyway), the taunting was relentless. So by keeping my distance and killing time, I could then race into class at the last minute, thereby saving myself from the few minutes of hissed questions I’d otherwise get: “Where’s your boyfriend, Marshall?” “Did you run funny like that because you just took it up the ass?” “What does sperm taste like?”
There was always a balance to this. Being one of those bright kids who got straight As with no effort, I couldn’t afford to get in trouble for being late. I could get away with it to a certain extent, but I had to be careful. If I was going to have an escape hatch other than a noose or a bottle of my mother’s pills, it would have to be my report cards. My teachers knew what was going on but, well, it was the South and, you know, Reagan. Faggots got laughed at back then, at least until they started dying en masse, and then they still got laughed at.
Harm reduction: some 15 years before I heard the term for the first time, I was already practicing it by darting into the classroom just as the bell rang, or two seconds after.
Truro, England: June 2021
The Arch Hill roundabout scares me a little. If you look at a map of Truro, you’ll see that the A390 curves south around the city center. My husband S. once said it looks like a man’s crotch in underwear. He has a point. At the southernmost point in the bulge, Arch Hill (aka the A39) takes you south toward Falmouth. Despite and because of the amount of traffic flowing through here, there are no lights at this intersection, just two interlocking roundabouts that maim visitors. There should be lights, but Truro’s too small to have an alternate route to use while the works are being carried out. In the quieter seasons, the system sort of works if everyone knows how to use it. But when it’s raining, visibility is poor, and there are tourists, accidents happen.
My heart always speeds up as I approach it. I’ve had two near misses. The first time, turning right one early morning, I was distracted and anxious. Did I have the right of way? Did the other car? Probably they did, but I realized this when I was already in the roundabout. I floored the gas pedal. Thank god for good pickup. Almost crapped myself. Got to campus still shaking. The second time, I almost hit a police car that was turning right onto the A390 from Old Falmouth Road. I had literally not realized that a route through the twin roundabouts existed. Plus, it was raining. I stomped the brakes. The cop in the passenger’s seat turned to glare at me, rapping his knuckles on the car window. Be careful, he mouthed. On the way home, I stopped in at Sainsbury’s not because I needed groceries but because I was terrified they might change their minds and pull me over. Since then, I’ve grown more comfortable behind the wheel: I’ve lived here long enough to know who has the right of way, long enough even to swear at obvious tourists as they blunder through these junctions.
Once I’m through the roundabout, I stomp on the gas. There’s less traffic now. Speed limits are higher than they would be on similar roads in the States. Southbound Arch Hill curves downward and away from Truro’s nutsack. I take comfort in acceleration. The transition from very small city to verdant countryside is instant: stone hedgerows and curtain-walls of trees line the road. It’s twisty—no wide, straight American-style thoroughfares here—and there’s barely a building in sight. My relief disappears the second I round the first curve and see brake lights. Just ahead, there’s an oversized truck creeping forward, no doubt scraping the square-cut tree canopy overhead.
Mercifully, the truck turns at one of the side roads that lead off into the lanes, which is what Cornwall’s narrow rural roadways are called. They’re also called rat runs. Barely the width of a regular passenger car, most of these are fenced on both sides by hedgerows or ancient stone walls. Sometimes both. They’d be impossible to widen without dynamite, and so much would be required that Cornwall itself would break off and float out into the Atlantic. Brambles scratch your paintwork. Not all of these rat runs are even paved. When two cars meet coming in opposite directions, one person has to back up. Here and there, you’ll find driveways or turnouts for passing. Now and then, the local news sites print pictures of cars and trucks wedged between these stone walls—no doubt driven by tourists or emmets (the derogatory local term for newcomers). I’m less terrified of the lanes than I was at first, but locals speed on them. I’ve faced oncoming death at 60 miles per hour several times, and once a massive lorry came barreling toward me when I rounded a blind corner. It’s as frightening as it sounds.
I mark my trek down to work with the roundabouts, and now I’m at the next one, Playing Place, the real actual name of the first village past Truro. Named for a traditional Cornish open-air theater in the round (in Cornish, it’s Plen an Gwari), Playing Place is a little suburb of the little city. Like so much else here, it sits on centuries of history and is relevant because there’s a Texaco station. I consider pulling off the road, onto the forecourt. Should I text my colleagues? Can someone get a message to someone? But this has all happened at the last minute, and I’m not sure who’s doing what or even who I’m meant to be teaching, really. I’ve got some notes in my iPad and ideas for an activity if I need one. Mostly I’ll be ad-libbing this. Freeballing, as it were. As long as traffic doesn’t grind to a halt again, I’ll be… only slightly late?
Greensboro, NC: 1994
My second job after university was at a small social-services agency for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. This agency is still around, but the name has changed since my time there. There were three full-time staff positions: the director, the office manager, and me. I’ve forgotten what my job title was—“Interpreter/Consultant,” I think. Being the only one of the three even remotely fluent in American Sign Language, I stayed busy. The director’s duties seemed to comprise two tasks: long lunches and long intervals of crying in her office. It was her first job out of grad school. She was over her head and out of her depth. The office manager answered the phones and scheduled appointments for interpreters in the Greensboro area when requests came in. I handled day-to-day interpreting needs and a lot of ad hoc consultancy services on the newly enacted Americans with Disabilities Act. This entailed endless phone calls to doctors and law firms and such, informing them that they now had to pay for interpreting services instead of us. These calls were not received with much warmth.
The office manager—we’ll call her Sharon—couldn’t stand me. It was subtle at first, the jeering way she’d comment on the fact that I had a tattoo on “that skinny leg” the first time she saw me in shorts, the way I’d catch her looking at me as if I smelled bad. She often got to work late because she had to drop her daughters off at school. Ergo, if the center was going to open on time, it was imperative that I be there. As time went by, I saw the pattern. She was one of those good Christian ladies who loves gay men as long as they’re hairstylists. Skinny awkward nerds in social services didn’t fit her “love the sinner, hate the sin” religious paradigms, so the power of Christ compelled her to drive me out.
The director—we’ll call her Rachel—didn’t like me much either. She did at first. But she and Sharon started having closed-door meetings shortly after I got hired. The tone shifted. I was late too often, Rachel said. So was she. She’d rock in at ten or ten-thirty, pale and puffy and in retrospect probably hung over. Her office door would close. She’d emerge for coffee. Little else seemed to get done.
It was a very grey year. We didn’t have the Internet, but we’d heard of it. I had no social life to speak of. I didn’t drink much. Couldn’t afford cable TV. At night I’d get home and read book after book, sometimes more than once if I liked them enough. Time worked differently then. I’d get to the end of the month and sigh with relief that I could finally afford to go to the supermarket. Even though my pay wouldn’t be deposited until the last day of every month, checks were a thing then: I could write one a day in advance, knowing it wouldn’t bounce. Also, around the 20th of every month, I’d be reimbursed for expenses. It was never much, maybe $50, but it meant I could eat, put gas in the car, and gasp my way through that last week and a half until payday.
I couldn’t seem to save money. Nor could I find a part-time job. I did apply for them. No one would hire me. Skinny socially awkward gay nerds were not of interest to the retail sector. Perhaps we are now, but we weren’t then. Exhausted from month after month of scraping by, I made an appointment with a financial advisor at a county agency. He reviewed my paltry financials and said, “This is easy. You can’t save money because you’re literally not making enough to save. You’re not wasting it on anything that I can tell. It’s not your fault. You’re going to have to find another job.”
By this point, I had worked out a system: I knew when each bill was due and what the grace period was, and I’d mail out the checks at the last minute so that there would be money in the bank as long as possible for contingencies. Inevitably, some were late. But my credit was already a smoldering Nagasaki to begin with, so I couldn’t worry too much about making it worse.
Toward the end of my year at that agency, work I’d done began disappearing off the computers. Notably, one three-day assignment that I’d already given to one of the local interpreters just vanished. The deaf client got upset because they were expecting an interpreter to show up. The hearing client had no idea what was going on. The interpreter lost several hundred dollars as a result. Everyone was inconvenienced and annoyed. Naturally, I got blamed for it. When I suggested that Sharon must have deleted it, she lunged across her desk at me shouting. I asked around. Colleagues in the interpreting community and several local deaf folks knew how she felt about me. The consensus was that she was sabotaging my work. Rachel was too clueless to see it, either hiding in her office in tears or having long lunches with Sharon.
One night I stopped by the supermarket for a big can of the decaf version of the coffee we drank in the office. I’d recently gone off caffeine, a terrible mistake I hope never to repeat, but my two enemies still partook. (I drank a lot of chamomile tea, and Sharon once remarked that it looked like I was drinking urine.) I then drove over to our building, let myself in, and replaced the coffee with decaf. The ensuing withdrawal headaches turned Rachel and Sharon into a pair of bickering monsters. And when Rachel tried to fire me a few weeks later, we had a lovely, enlightening chat about how the center literally could not function without someone fluent in ASL. How would that look in the deaf community? I’d be out there freelancing and getting by, talking with everyone about what had happened, how they’d treated me. Did she really think that would be a good idea? She backed down. I found a job in DC. Packed and left. Big relief.
Lesson learned: it’s okay if the weepy, hungover director and the straight lady with two kids are always late for work. But if you’re gay, you’re forever support staff. We’ll still despise you, but as long as you show up on time, don’t ask questions, and do as you’re told, we’ll pretend that we’re tolerating you. To your face, anyway.
Truro/Penryn, England: June 2021
The next couple of roundabouts come in quick succession: Carnon Downs (no distinguishing features apart from the sign for a chain hotel that’s not visible from the road), Bissoe (there’s another steep slope and a stretch of dual carriageway where you can finally pass any trucks you’ve been stuck behind). Things get a bit more interesting at Treluswell (it rhymes with “it does well”). Madame Satellite, as I’ve nicknamed the stern voice of my satnav system, always insists that I turn left. This route would take me through downtown Penryn and to the opposite side of Falmouth. It’s not that you can’t drive down both high streets, but why would you? It would take at least ten minutes longer, and there are electronic bollards in Falmouth. I don’t know how they work. Better to stay on the A390, which takes you around Penryn. From there, it’s a straight shot into Falmouth and down to the waterfront, just a bit beyond campus. If I park in one of the paid lots, I can avoid the twin terrors of narrow streets and parallel parking. Besides, I no longer bother with satnav on the drive to work. Muscle memory and whatnot. But in my first couple of months here, I had to listen to Madame Satellite bark “recalculating… recalculating…” as if she were irked at me for disobeying every time I passed this way.
“Dogging” is British slang for having sex outdoors. It can take place almost anywhere, it would seem: parks, parking lots, public toilets. Well, I’m less certain about the latter: I think “cottaging” covers that one, at least among gay men on the prowl. A local news site published a listicle not long after I got here: popular spots for dogging in and around Truro. Apparently there’s a lot of it going on, straight people shagging in cars and the woods and on park benches, every bit as brazen as the gay guys. Raunchy bastards.
In Asia, this isn’t a thing. There are love hotels. Although the idea sounds sleazy prima facie, it makes sense there. People live with their families until well into adulthood. The cities are crowded. If you’re gay, there are saunas and sex clubs, but most couples don’t have other places to fuck. It’s all very discreet: frosted glass if there’s a lobby, landscaping and barriers to hide license plates on cars, even vending machines that dispense your room keys. The love-hotel rooms I’ve seen (strictly for research purposes, of course) are very clean. Your partner might give you scabies but the sheets won’t. Sex etiquette in the countries I’m familiar with involves taking a shower first, and after. Considering the weather, it would be disgusting not to.
The lay-by just after Treluswell is a notorious gay cruising spot. Which seems odd. By day, there’s a food truck. It does a lot of business. There are a few picnic tables in the adjacent green space. Even in the rain, there are plenty of cars parked out there whenever I pass by… at least, during the day. In the evening, the picture changes. You can only see the entrance and exit to the lay-by from the road. Now and then I’ve glanced in that direction. From what I could tell, you’d need good parallel-parking skills if you wanted to pop in for quick head in the shrubbery. But I’m baffled just now. How many of these customers are there for a blowjob as well as a breakfast burrito? Day and night, the place does a lot of business. But how does it work, exactly? And wouldn’t they want to make sure the utensils are clean before putting someone else’s fork in their mouth?
It’s 11.40am. Again, I’m tempted to pull over and text my colleagues, and pruriently curious about what I might see, but I press on. As long as nothing ghastly happens, I might almost be sort of on-time-ish.
San Francisco, CA: 2003
Ten and I’m in. I used to repeat this phrase in my head, sometimes mouthing the words to reassure myself that I wouldn’t be late, I wouldn’t be late, I wouldn’t be late… knowing it was a lie, of course, and not a spell or incantation. After four years in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had a sense of how the community felt about me: decent interpreter, used to work at Gallaudet University so had an additional bit of professional cred, prone to being late.
I never told people how often I had to detour on my way to work to find a clean restroom in a hurry. I always seemed to be ducking into hotel lobbies, City Hall, Moscone Center, the Metropolitan Community Church on Eureka Street, Stonestown Galleria, you name it. One time I had a job down in San Jose—on campus at San Jose State—and to this day I remember the sweaty terror. When the urge hits, it’s a lightning strike. I don’t have much time. That morning, I parked. Panicked. The gym was the closest building I thought might be open. The woman at the front door saw my distress and let me in even though I didn’t have a campus ID. I made it to the men’s room with seconds to spare.
Over the years, I tried and tried to tighten up my habits. I’d leave earlier. Prepare better in advance. Get lunch ready. Make sure my clothes were set out and ironed. In fact, I’d do all the ironing on Sunday afternoons. A whole closet full of wrinkle-free shirts and trousers! All of this helped and none of it mattered: my guts had the last word. Eventually my habit of paying bills at the last possible moment merged with my need to stay at home until the last possible moment. This echoed with earlier time-management choices. Corrosive anxiety is sometimes better than actual risk.
Meanwhile, much of the travel writing I was reading back then put a different spin on punctuality-obsessed (or just work-obsessed) American lifestyles. In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes famously bailed on the Bay Area after a messy divorce, ended up in Italy, and bought and refurbished a house there. It’s a seductive story. She is gracious in her frustration at how long it takes for her contractors to show up and finish their work. Time is softer there, more flexible. Tomorrow. Later. Eventually. It’ll get done. Tony Cohan recounts a similar tale in On Mexican Time. Like Mayes, he abandoned the US for a warmer and more inviting locale south of the border. Like Mayes, he and his wife fall in love with a charming town (San Miguel de Allende) and hire men who take forever to refurbish the house they buy. The more I read in this genre (A Year in Provence, In Maremma, and so on), the more convinced I became that I was physically not cut out for life in America. Or at a minimum, I was not cut out for a profession that required me to race all over the metro area from one assignment to the next, catching the occasional nap in my car in a parking garage, never knowing quite when traffic on the freeway would grind to a halt or the streetcar wouldn’t come, always stressed out and gobbling Pepto Bismol tablets, always on the verge of being late.
Penryn, England: June 2021
Ten and I’m in. This phrase is back in my head again. No, I won’t be in my office in ten minutes, but with only three stoplights between me and campus, the odds are improving. I’ve passed the one next to the campus Falmouth and Exeter share. I stayed in one of the student residences for a couple of months last summer right after I arrived in the UK, while I was looking for a house. The rental market here in Cornwall is even worse than San Francisco at the height of the dotcom madness twenty-odd years ago. Dozens of people apply for every flat and house that goes on the market. Too many AirBnB properties, too many second homes, too many people down here from London and Birmingham and Bristol now that they can work remotely. I don’t love my modest little terrace house in the burbs—it feels like a way station until my husband gets here from Hong Kong and we can buy a place of our own—but I’m grateful to have it nonetheless.
My grandmother used to say she’d get to something “directly,” meaning “later, at some unspecified time of my choosing, perhaps not as soon as you’d like even though I’m using a word that suggests immediacy because it will shut you up and because there are other things I might consider more important but would prefer to discuss with you right now.” It was, and remains, a useful word, and it’s still used down here in Cornwall. We’re not of Cornish origin that I know of, but a branch of the family originated just up the A30 in Devon. Perhaps “directly” is part of the family story I’ve never been told. I find myself saying it more often now that I live here. Like a stonemason or a bricklayer in a sunnier country, I will get to things when I get to them, later and at a time of my choosing.
I’ve passed the big Asda supermarket now, made a mental note to stop in on the way home. Their dishwasher pods dissolve better than the Sainsbury’s ones. There are a few other things I need too, but mainly it’s for the dishwasher pods. After Asda, there’s a couple-of-mile stretch where although a sign warns of a speed camera, there isn’t one. You can speed. So I do. Last roundabout before Falmouth, hang a left, down the steep hill, and the mouth of the River Fal comes into sudden view. It always seems to be low tide, but a broad expanse of sparkling water is never an unwelcome sight, even if you are looking at it from above the rooftops of a couple of chain stores.
It’s now 11.50. It’ll take me a whisker less than ten minutes to get to campus and park. Instead of going back to my office, I’ll go straight to the meeting room where I’m meant to be teaching this workshop. That was my technique back in Hong Kong: I’d have my lesson plans in Google Drive and a couple of whiteboard markers in my backpack. Water bottle already full. Everyone here knows traffic’s unpredictable with lockdown over and the tourists back.
I’ll be there directly.
Hong Kong: 2019
After almost 15 years in hardworking, punctuality-obsessed Asia—first Korea, then Hong Kong—I settled into a sort of compromised state. Some instructors are diligent about being in class and ready to go as soon as the minute hand hits the 12 or the 6. My own students quickly realize I’m the other type, the one who will rock in three minutes late and switch on the classroom PC. I don’t make much small talk because I’m an introvert and there’s a switch I have to flip in my head first. We’ll get started eventually. I ease into things.
My husband and I lived on Caine Road in the lower Mid-Levels my final year there. To get to my university campus out in the remote New Territories, I had to make my way down the hill either on foot (rarely pleasant in that swelter) or in a taxi or minibus. From there, I’d take the MTR out to Kam Sheung Road in far-suburban Yuen Long. Kam Sheung Road isn’t a busy station, and it’s easy to get a cab there. Although there’s a station a short walk from campus, one stop away from the end of that line, there were two issues above and beyond my time-management failings: heat and safety. For much of the year, Hong Kong is hotter than Satan’s taint, and the campus is at the top of a gentle rise. Walking, you don’t really notice until the final stretch up to the main entrance. There’s no shade. The only thing I hate more than getting sweaty in the first place is then having to interact with other people while dripping. Plus, the protests had been going on for months and getting more violent. Skipping Yuen Long Station, where gangland thugs raided an MTR train and beat the shit out of innocent commuters and were largely not prosecuted for it, felt like the smarter thing to do. I still had to pass through there on the way home but if it had been easier to catch a taxi on campus, I’d have preferred that.
It’s hard to say where the dividing line was in the protests, the point at which I went from being concerned to being just plain scared all the time. One afternoon in early fall, late September or thereabouts, S. and I walked down the hill to have ramen at a little izakaya we knew to be supportive of the pro-democracy movement. That’s a thing there: there are lists of pro-democracy shops and restaurants, places whose owners have made public statements in favor of the cause. This is called the yellow economic circle, in contrast with the pro-Beijing establishment, who are blue. As much as I liked the yellow izakaya, the food didn’t seem to like me. We’d eaten there together maybe twice? Each time resulted in rapid-onset digestive Krakatoa. Hiking up a steep hill in stifling heat with literally every muscle in your body clenched to keep the lava inside the volcano is not an experience I would recommend to anyone other than high-level Hong Kong government officials. Perhaps this time, something would be different.
We were planning to go over to Causeway Bay afterward for some shopping. I broke out in a sweat as soon as we stepped outside after eating. There was that telltale head-swimmy feeling. S. and I have been together a long time. One look at me and he knew what was going to happen. I started up the hill at a fast walk, knowing I’d be winded and drenched by the time we reached our building. I made it, but it was another couple of hours before I could even think of leaving our flat.
The police went apeshit that afternoon and started gassing Causeway Bay while I was at home recuperating. By then, we were used to seeing tear gas and baton charges and water cannon and mass arrests at the end of the individual protest marches and demonstrations. The cops were already corralling people, boxing whoever was around into alleys and such, then arresting them all. Guilt by proximity. This was the first time the cops had been so indiscriminate in a busy shopping district full of bystanders in the middle of the day. Tourists. Kids. Grannies. Regular folks just out there to buy some T-shirts at Uniqlo or H&M, or kitchen shit at Ikea; or to eat dumplings at Din Tai Fung. The live footage on TV was appalling, people running this way and that to escape from the advancing cloud-walls of tear gas and the cops in their dystopian sci-fi black battle gear. Screams and shouts. The distinct thump of tear gas canisters being launched. Swearing in Cantonese. More screaming. Endless screaming.
If we’d gone over there on time and as planned, we’d have been caught up in that. Probably gassed, possibly captured, and beaten. In the strangest of ways, my punctuality issues saved us that day.
Falmouth, England: June 2021
As expected, there’s plenty of parking at the station near campus. I send a quick text to the group chat on Teams: I’m almost there, I’m walking!
Quick response from one of my colleagues: There’s only one guy. The rest aren’t here yet.
Coping strategy: Like many gay men, I walk fast. It’s safer. Not that I fear being jumped here, but I’ve had the habit since childhood. You’re less of a target if it’s hard to catch up. A paved path leads from the station parking lot up to campus. In Hong Kong, this would be a bleak affair of bricks and sun-bleached street furniture, any plants pruned back to gasping nubs. Here, it’s a patch of lush woodland, and the highlight is a Gunnera plant. Also called giant rhubarb, the thing towers over me and has leaves the size of umbrellas. I believe they’re endemic to Venus.
Coping strategy: Harm reduction. I force myself to slow down. Instead of charging forward, I’m walking briskly. I slow down a bit more. It takes effort. Although this university and my previous one have very little in common, one thing they share is an insidious slope. You don’t notice until you’re out of breath and uncomfortably damp. If I have to be a few minutes late, I can at least arrive dry and still able to breathe. Composure helps. So does oxygen.
There’s a lot to unravel, a lot to unpack. I’m rarely late for things here now. I think of all the times I’ve exasperated people in the past. I think of my Colombian-Italian friend from Hong Kong who’s in Riyadh now. Whenever we’d get together, I’d tell him to arrive an hour earlier than I meant for him to be there. Sometimes two. Nobody needs these strategies here, not with me. Nobody’s going to get mad at me today, but the anxieties capering in my head aren’t about that. In one form or another, I’ve been protecting myself all this time.
The group of teachers arrives in the room five minutes after I do. Even masked, I’ve got my breath back. More or less.
“What is creativity?” I ask once everyone has settled in.
Marshall Moore (he/him) is an American author, publisher, and academic based in Cornwall, England. He has written several novels and collections of short fiction, the most recent being Inhospitable (Camphor Press, 2018). His short stories have appeared in Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, The Barcelona Review, and many other publications. He holds a PhD in creative writing from Aberystwyth, and he teaches creative writing and publishing at Falmouth University. His next book is a co-edited (with Sam Meekings) academic collection from Routledge (2021), Creative Writing Scholars on the Publishing Trade: Practice, Praxis, Print. Following that, a memoir titled I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing will be released by Rebel Satori Press in 2022. For more information, please visit www.marshallmoore.com, or follow him on Twitter at @iridiumgobbler.